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About billnieporte

billnieporte has been a member since June 8th 2009, and has created 786 posts from scratch.

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BTSR Chapel Sermon: “As You Wish”

As You Wish
Matthew 3:13-17

13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

One of my favorite novels is The Princess Bride. When I was in seminary, the book became the basis of a movie directed by Rob Reiner. I’ve read the novel and seen the movie more times that I can count.

The book and screenplay were written by William Goldman. He pretends to translate a Florinese manuscript written an S. Morgenstern. But in reality, there is no Florinese language, no country named Florin, and no author named S. Morgenstern.

Goldman wrote the novel in response to his two daughter’s constant requests for a story about either a “princess” or a “bride.” The story offers swashbuckling thrills, villainy and heroism, intrigue and romance, but does so without taking itself too seriously. It’s inclusion of pirates, swordplay, a giant, screaming eels, fire swamps, and ROUSs (rodents of unusual size), makes the tale is appealing to girls and boys of all ages.

It is filled with some very enjoyable lines of dialogue.

For example, there is the irritable criminal mastermind Vizzini, who confronting the hero, advises (in an extremely irritating voice):
“Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line!”

There is Inigo Montoya, a Spanish accented, revenge-driven swordsman who promises that when he finds the murderer of his father, he will walk up to him say: “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

But of all the great lines, one of the most well-known takes place when Buttercup is being forced to marry evil Prince Humperdink. The Archdeacon of Florin appears in an ornate cathedral, dressed imposing robes and vestments, and when he begins to speak, sounding almost exactly like Elmer Fudd:

“Mah-widge. Mah-widge is what bwings us together today … that dweam wiffin a dweam. …”

But there is one line that is the heart of the story. As the movie begins, we see Buttercup going through her chores on a farm. She has two great joys in life. The first is riding her horse, that she named “Horse,” revealing that Buttercup is not very imaginative. Her other great joy was tormenting the young boy who worked on the farm. She ordered him about:

“Farm Boy, fetch me that bucket.”
“Farm Boy, get me that bowl.”

It was like all day long.

“Farm boy, fetch me this.”
“Farm Boy, fetch me that.”

His reply was always the same. Whenever Buttercup asked him to do something for her, he would always reply: “As you wish.”
That is all he ever said.

Then one day Buttercup asked him to fetch a pitcher that was easily within her reach. Farm Boy, whose real name is Wesley, walked over, stares into her eyes, lifts the pitcher, and hands to her while whispering: “As you wish.”

In that moment Buttercup realizes that every time Wesley said, “As you wish” what he was really saying was “I love you.”

It dawned on me, when thinking about Jesus baptism, that what He was saying in His submission to baptism where those simple words as a prayer: “As you wish!”

The question as to why Jesus was baptized in a significant one in theological circles. Theologians, including the Gospel authors, each offer a different perspective in answering this question.

The Fourth Gospel does not mention Jesus baptism. The Baptizer was there, acting like a prophet, calling people to repent in preparation for the coming Messiah. When Jesus appears the Baptizer points to him and says, “This is the guy I have been talking about.” With that, the ministry of Jesus begins.

In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus’ baptism is mentioned, but without detail. Mark simply reports the facts without interpretation or explanation. One day, John was preaching. Jesus showed up and John baptized him. The heavens opened. God’s voice was heard. Jesus goes to the wilderness, is tempted. Just the facts.

In Luke’s Gospel, the text says, “When all the people came to be baptized, Jesus came too!” For Luke, in that moment, it was important that Jesus identified with the people as He joined them in baptism.

Matthew is the only one who offers any sort of theological reason for Jesus baptism! According to Matthew, the Baptizer is preaching and baptizing. He is bold and brash and the people come from all over. They come to repent and be baptized. Maybe they are excited about the possibility of a second chance and the hope that God might not be finished with them.

Then Matthew tells us that Jesus came to be baptized. Why Jesus? Wasn’t he the perfect revelation of God? Wasn’t he the one who came to save his people from their sin? Wasn’t he the one who would baptize not with water, but with fire and with the Holy Spirit? Why did Jesus come for baptism?

Even the Baptizer wondered. As Jesus approached, John said, “I am not worthy.” He said, “It is not I who should baptize you, but you who should baptize me.” But Jesus says, “Hush! We have to do this to fulfill all righteousness!”

Righteousness – what comes to your mind when you hear that word? I think it meant something different in Jesus’ day than what we’ve made it to mean in ours. We think of it as some sort of absolute standard – a set of rule, rituals, regulations, and requirements to be adhered to and obeyed.

It the Bible, righteousness means something different. It is an expression of God’s gracious activity to save. God’s righteousness is God’s salvation. It is something that is deeply rooted in the loving character of God.

So Jesus comes to baptism aware of the love of the One whom He audaciously called Father or Abba or Papa. He came to baptism experiencing love, and sharing Abba’s desire that all humanity experience that love.

By submitting to baptism, I think Jesus was saying, “Papa, I am joining you in the joy of making all people aware of your salvation.” Put another way, Jesus was saying, “As you wish.”

Jesus prayed that kind of prayer several times throughout his life. One of the most intense was on the night before his crucifixion. Jesus prayed: “Abba, if it be your will, let this cup pass from me! Nevertheless not my will, but yours be done.” “As you wish!”

At his baptism, Jesus placed himself under God’s call. Nothing was more important than to affirm and live out God’s righteousness. Jesus was saying: “As you wish!”

So, what does this mean for us when we follow Jesus in baptism? Might it mean that at baptism we are invited to catch a glimpse of the righteousness that saves us – that welcomes us as dearly loved children. We are baptized into Christ and in that fellowship, we hear the same promise from heaven: “You are my beloved children. In you I am well pleased!”

Now if we hear that and it makes us feel intimidated into thinking this and awesome chore, challenge, and responsibility, we miss the point.

You see as a people united with Jesus, we are in the same relationship with the One He called Abba. We are God children. We are God’s sons and daughters. We are connected to God in a love relationship. It is not obligation, expectation, or duty that motivates us. It’s love. God loves us.

In baptism – in life – our response is a heartfelt prayer to the One who loves us. And that simple prayer to God is this: “As you wish!”
I remember the day of my baptism. It was hard to forget. I was sixteen and already six feet tall. My pastor was 4’11” in platform shoes.

I might also want to tell you that I am a bit aqua phobic. When he leaned me back into the water, I slipped and began thrash about. I was kicking and flailing my arms.  The members of the choir all became Methodist that morning.

Unfortunately, I had not yet been completely immersed. Being a good old fashioned Baptist preacher, was determined to get the job done. So he kept pushing until I was totally under.

When it was all over, after worship, one of the church deacons came to me and said: “Billy (they called me Billy then – please don’t call me Billy). He came to me and said: “Billy this was a special day. This was a day for to remember that God loves. This was a day for you to express your love for God.”

I have been thinking about that as I have prepared to be here today. I do love God. I have given God my life. My prayer as I remember my baptism is simply this: “As you wish!”

I can tell you this: Sometimes saying that prayer is downright terrifying.

In August, I was feature in news stories from our local TV stations and on the front page of the Richmond Times Dispatch. Don’t worry; I did not do anything illegal, immoral, or unethical. Up till August 20th, I was the pastor of the Patterson Avenue Baptist Church in Richmond. On that Sunday our historic congregation worshipped for the last time. After ten years as their pastor, I led them to disband as a church and donate their property to a new, younger congregation.

That was the last day of a long journey. In the few years prior we had been walking in darkness and despondency. In the final few years before that closing we have travelled from one graveside to another. We buried nearly 75% of our active membership. We died well. We died with an eye toward mission. We died in a fashion that served to advance God’s Reign in our community. But we did die.

I led a congregation into the graveyard. I wasn’t taught or equipped to do that in seminary. I heard about it happening to other pastors in other places. Statistics tell us that 4000 churches in America close every year. But I did not think I would be a part of one of those numbers. Yet it was the direction God led us. As so we prayed: “As you wish…”

I remember, now, that when I was baptized it was not about me. It was not about my commitment, my emotions, my feeling, my vows, my success in ministry. Baptism isn’t about that. The Gospel isn’t about that. The Gospel is about a God who loves me more than I could even imagine. This is a God who loves me (and each of you) with every fiber of God’s Triune being. The God whom Jesus called Abba love you.

The words aren’t there in the text, but I can’t help but believe that they express the heart of Jesus. Jesus took the brokenness of humanity into Himself and redeemed us all. He did this because it was the passion of God.

The voice that spoke over him (and speaks over us), saying: “This in my beloved child, in whom I am well pleased.” This God invites us to join in the joy of making the good news know. Knowing that, we can pray in response: “As you wish!”

 

 

Christmas for Grown-ups, Chamberlyne Baptist

This is the sermon I preached at the Chamberlayne Baptist Church where my friend Dave Peppler is pastor.

 

Christmas for Grown-ups     Luke 2:22-40

22When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23(as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), 24and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

25Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, 29“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” 33And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him.

34Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

36There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. 39When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.

40The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

Last week I sat in a fast food restaurant, thinking about this morning’s sermon. At a nearby table some senior citizens were reflecting on what it means to grow old.

One of them said: “I know I am getting older because almost everything hurts, and what doesn’t hurt doesn’t work!”

With that it began…

“You Know You’re Getting Older When…”

Your back goes out more than you do.

You feel like the morning after but you didn’t go anywhere the night before.

You don’t care where your wife goes, just as long as you don’t have to go along with her.

Somebody compliments you on being patient. But really, it’s just that you just don’t care anymore.

And my favorite: “You know you’re getting older when you sink your teeth into a juicy steak, and they just stay there.”

As entertaining as it was to hear these reflections on getting old, I was a little disturbed. Each of these statements reinforced the idea that getting older means to be “past one’s prime.”

But I’ve known many senior citizens who never became “past their prime.”

Let me tell you about Gazelle Eubank. When I became a pastor on the Northern Neck, I was told that she should be my first pastoral visit. She was 92 years old. I assumed folks wanted me to visit her because she might not have much time left. I assumed I would find her in a rocking chair, near a window, reading the Gospel of John from a Bible on her lap. When I arrived I saw her sitting on a John Deer lawn-mower, cutting the three acres of grass around her house.

Let me tell you about George and Edna Roff. They met in Sunday School when they were both four years old. They married when they were both 16 years old. I became their pastor as they were preparing to celebrate their 75th wedding anniversary. For more than 80 years they had been together, as a blessing to their church, family, and community.

Let me tell you about Burleigh and Jewel Tatum, both in their late eighties when I became their pastor. I had just preached a sermon about Abraham and Sarah, advanced in years, giving birth to something new in their son Isaac. Burleigh and Jewel were holding hands like teenagers when they met me after the benediction. “Pastor, we don’t have time to talk,” Burleigh said as they went out the door. Your sermon inspired us and we’ve got to get home and start working on birthing something new in the world.”

Let me tell you about Eloise Ridgeway, who was 106 at the time of her death. At 103 I went to visit her at Lakewood Manor. She wasn’t in her room. I eventually found her in the gym, doing 15 minutes of spin on a stationary bike. I discover she did that three times a week.

Today’s text tells us of Simeon and Anna, defined as old, yet still living with energy, passion, and faith.

Simeon had seen a lot in his lifetime. We are told he had waited a long time for the consolation of Israel. He had been waiting, praying, and longing to see his Israel find comfort after many decades of sad disappointment.

As a man of advanced years, Simeon would have witness many changes in his life. He would have seen control over Jerusalem change hands many times. Kings and Emperors and Governors – Herod, Caesar, and Pilate – and all come and gone, but little changed.

As a boy, Simeon probably heard stories from his grandparents about the Maccabean uprising. In his home and synagogue he would have heard stories about Abraham and Sarah, the exodus out of Egypt, the reign of King David, and the days of the prophets.

No doubt, he had seen the rise of the Roman Empire and its oppression over the Jewish people. As he witnessed this abuse, he had probably professed belief that one day Jerusalem would one day be free from its oppressors. He hoped, and prayed that this liberation might come during his lifetime.

Simeon was at the Temple on the day of Jesus’ presentation and circumcision. He probably sat with fellow elders, talking politics and the economy, and maybe telling jokes about getting older while eating bagels and lox with his friend. At appointed hours they would also pray, and chant, and sing.

While praying, Simeon saw a Joseph, Mary, and the infant Jesus enter the Temple’s outer courtyard. Such a site should not normally raise an eyebrow. It probably happened multiple times daily. But for some reason, this child was different. Simeon knew that this baby would change the world.

He watched and waited and when he saw the young family depart from the temple, Simeon ran and blessed them. “I can now die in peace,” he said. “I have seen God’s promised redeemer.” If all that were not strange enough, he next turned to mother Mary and said: “Your child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

An old man blesses a baby. It a picture of shared fragility in which we see God acting in a new way.

But we are not done yet. Next up is Anna, introduced as a prophet (or preacher). We learn she spend her days at the Temple, praying to God and proclaiming God’s will and way.

Anna, like Simeon, was an very old – 84 years old. That was nearly twice the life expectancy of the time.

Anna sees the infant Jesus. Next she praises God and tells anyone who will listen that in this child rested God’s promised redemption. She declares Jesus to be the Messiah the people were waiting for.

I was in a conversation not long ago about the variety of festivities surrounding Christmas. We were talking about Santa, Rudolph, stockings, presents, and Christmas trees. One of them said: “Well, Christmas is about the children.”

Not in today’s text. Today’s story tells us about Christmas for grown-ups. It tells us about Christmas for those who have seen the sorrowful side of life and find themselves looking for consolation, solace, and relief. This is about an infant who would grow-up to be the Savior of the world.

Simeon and Anna hunger to see God working in the world – and when they finally see that, they are not shy about declaring it so. They put their name and reputation on the line by declaring the word they have received from God.

It must have been quite the spectacle; these two senior citizens making a fuss over a little baby. Two old people, thought to be “past their prime,” heaping praise on an infant, declaring that the power of God was wrapped up in that small, insignificant package.

But that’s how God moves more often than not. In Paul’s letter to the Romans we learn that “God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And God chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful.”

We look to the White House or the State House and think that power resides there. We looked to the wealthy elite on Wall Street to think that their decisions determine our destiny. But God mostly chooses those in the small house on Main Street to make salvation known.

But still, we understand Simeon and Anna declarations just a bit, don’t we? Who has not held an infant child in their arms and not thought similar things as they?

Your pastor felt that way last Sunday. He carried an infant child as he preached. On social media he wrote: “I cannot describe the feeling of joy to carry a tiny baby through the congregation this morning while delivering a homily. Laying him in the manger and seeing a look of complete peace was overwhelming.”

Your pastor saw hope, peace, joy, and love in the face of an infant child. As he reflected on the birth of Jesus, your pastor saw the potential of every life.

You’ve felt that way, too, haven’ you? You’ve your child or grandchild and imagined great things for them.

“Who are you going to become?”

“What great things will you do with your life?”

When Simeon and Anna held the infant Jesus, they somehow saw that one day he would change the world. They told everyone within earshot that God had finally sent the Messiah who would set them free.

But just so we do not get all spiritual about this, let’s remember that grown-ups tend to be more realistic than idealistic. That was certainly true of Simeon. Before he handed Jesus back to his mother, he gave her of warning.
“Your son will be responsible for the rise and the fall of many in their nation. He would be met with opposition…And in the end a sword would pierce both their souls.”

Now it is one thing to hear that you child is predestined to do great things. It is quite another thing to hear about the deadly cost your child is fated to face for following God’s ways. But it is a message we need to hear. We should be reminded that following Jesus will bring blessings in life, but it also has the potential to pierce our souls.

Grown-ups understand that.

In August I was feature in news stories from our local TV stations and on the front page of the Richmond Times Dispatch. Don’t worry; I did not do anything illegal, immoral, or unethical. Up till August 20th, I was the pastor of the Patterson Avenue Baptist Church in Richmond. On that Sunday our historic congregation worshipped for the last time. We disbanded as a church and gave our property to a new, younger congregation.
That was the last day of a long journey. In the several years prior we had been walking in darkness and despondency. In the final two prior to our closing, our congregation travelled from one graveside to another. We buried nearly 75% of our active membership. We died well. We died with an eye toward mission. We died in a fashion that served to advance God’s reign in our community. But we did die. And since that Sunday, though I know was lived out in obedience to the will of God, I have still felt that sword piercing my heart.

Do you understand what I am saying? There’s something about following the way of Jesus that can be dangerous, frightening, and challenging. The idea that a tiny, fragile, infant child holds within that small package the power to change the world – that requires a mindset that can grace in broken places, hope in dark corners, and resurrection at the graveyard.

Simeon and Anna saw that in the eyes of Jesus and they rejoiced. They told everyone who would listen: “Here’s is the Messiah!”

Let’s not view Anna and Simeon through rose colored glasses. While they were joyful, it was only in front of a backdrop of darkness and despair, sadness and sorrow.

I’ve seen joy in sadness and celebration in sorrow.

I’ve seen it in the more than 100 hospital rooms where I have sat with a family while momma or papa breathed their last breath.

I have seen it when talking to the homeless and jobless—to those on the brink of brink of brokenness, but who still sang God’s songs of salvation.

And I have seen it among those who have faced nothing but sadness and sorrow; they feel beaten down and broken. But they keep on looking for the consolation that only God can provide.

Those folks near me in the fast food joint were expressing with joy the sorrows they faced as grown-ups of an advanced age. That might well reflect the attitude of Simeon and Anna. Imagine Simeon and Anna sitting there saying: “You know you are getting older when…”

Last Sunday I preached at a church out in the country for a friend who had to be away on Christmas Eve. As I did today, I preached about hope in the midst of despair. And I shared the story I shared moments ago about the death of Patterson Avenue Baptist.

In the past week since, I have received nice email notes from older members of that church. They complimented me on the sermon. They lamented their fear that their church might be facing the same demise. Then they expressed their faith in God, no matter what?

One wrote, saying: “I am old, tired, and unable to do much. But by the grace of God, I will do what I can do!”

That’s the way Christmas is for grown-ups.

I have been blessed to know lots of grown-ups who were living radical lives of faith. You probably could tell some inspiring stories, too.

But there is a bigger issue at work. You see many of your have looked at Jesus. You have experienced the dawning of hope in your lives. You have been blessed by the consolation of Divine grace. Here’s the question: Now that you have seen Jesus, how will you declare his hope and grace to the world?

A Spirit of Applause at Grace Baptist Church, Richmond VA

A Spirit of Applause
Psalm 100

Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth.

Worship the LORD with gladness; come into GOD’s presence with singing.

Know that the LORD is God. It is God who has made us, and we are God’s; we are God’s people, and the sheep of God’s pasture.

Enter God’s gates with thanksgiving, and God’s courts with praise. Give thanks to God, bless God’s name.

For the LORD is good; God’s steadfast love endures forever, and God’s faithfulness to all generations.

 

I was in one of those big box stores this past week. I saw a young child sitting in a shopping cart. She was maybe three years old. Her father was pushing her down the aisle that contained all the stores Christmas decorations. There were decorated Christmas trees, a life sized bell ringing Santa, and an inflatable Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. It was so large that it could be perched on your rooftop.

As the father and his child made their way down the aisle, they would stop at each piece of décor. The father would whisper a few words to his daughter. I am not sure what he was saying, but it made her happy. They would both smile and shout “Merry Christmas,” and then the young girl clap her hands in delight.

Young children so easily express that gift of applause.

Music plays and a child will clap her hands to the beat of the music with exuberant happiness.

She will see a playmate at the daycare and will applaud in joyful anticipation of the games they will play.

Or maybe the applause will be in response to the taste of chocolate ice cream; or a big bundle of cotton candy; or a visit to see grandma. Young children so appreciate life that they will applaud almost anything.

Unfortunately, as they grow older, people lose that spirit of applause. They lose an appreciation for the amazing blessing of life.

This morning I’d like for us to recapture this spirit of applause. I think it’s a good Sunday to do that. Just days ago we gathered with family and friends to celebrate Thanksgiving. Next Sunday, we will begin our Advent journey toward Bethlehem. Today we are gathered on the last Sunday of the church year which we call “Reign of Christ Sunday.” This is a great occasion to pause and reflect upon the presence and blessings of God’s grace in our lives.

Are you familiar with the term “pack rat”?

A “pack rat” is a person who loves to pack away every piece of belonging that crosses their fingertips. Very little is thrown away. Instead, almost everything is packed away in boxes, basements, and attics.

Pack rats try to rationalize their behavior. To rationalize means that you are telling “rational lies” to justify some sort of behavior.

“That item has sentimental value!”

“This item reminds me of an important incident in my life. To get rid of that would be a denial of my very heart and soul.”

“I can’t get rid of that! I might need it again one day!”

“Pack rats” – the world is full of them. In fact, I have a confession to make. I am one of them. I’s a card-carrying member of the “pack rat” society.

Now my massive collection of junk has not really been a problem till recently. For a variety of reasons, we have decided to downsize. Our house is under contract. Just yesterday we signed a lease for an apartment. We will be transitioning from a home with 2200 feet into an apartment with just under 1000 feet.

My lovely wife Jeana said, “We are not taking all this junk with us, are we?” Now, I have been married long enough to recognize a rhetorical question when I hear one. What she meant was,
“We are NOT taking all this junk with us, are we!”

So, we’ve been downsizing. We’ve taken boxes of stuff to a local thrift store. Furniture is being taken to a consignment store. Truck loads of stuff have been taken to the dump.

But shssssh! Please don’t say anything, but some of the stuff has been slipped back into boxes to be taken to the apartment. (I know she is here, but I doubt she hears me. She usually sleeps through my sermons).

So, we have been packing and repacking. Along the way I have come across some personal treasures. I’ve got some things that I just can’t part with.

I found the February 1982 issue of the Baptist Campus Ministry Newsletter for the Florida Baptist Convention. In that newsletter, you will see my picture along with 18 other students from across Florida, selected to serve as Student Summer Missionaries. My assignment was to work in the Northwest Territories of Canada.

I found some old report cards from my seminary days. I found pictures of the people and churches I have served. I found a file with articles, sermons, and Sunday School literature I’ve had published. I couldn’t get rid of that stuff.

Then there are the books. I had already downsized my library substantially. But still I have 57 boxes of books.

One prize possession for me was a worship bulletin and cassette tape of the sermon preached by Dr. Don Musser, one of my professors from college, on the day of my ordination.

None of these items would mean much to any of you. They are my treasures, my memories, my experiences.

You probably have your own scrapbook, photo album, or treasure chest in your house.

When was the last time you opened your treasure chest? When was the last time you looked back to remember the ongoing blessing of God in your life?

I’ve been going through my boxes. I have been looking at my treasures. Along the way my heart has applauded with praise.

Sometimes God was center stage, doing all the acting. At other times, God was somewhere in the shadows, directing my path with whispering prompts. But God has always been there. Whether on center stage or off to the side, God has always been an integral part of my life. This is a good day to look back and recognize that even when I was not paying much attention to God, God was still paying attention to me.

So I have my mementos. I have my treasures. I have those things that remind me of God’s abiding grace.

Let me ask you: What are the treasures of grace in your life?

What are the mementos that inspire you toward a spirit of applause?

In Psalm 100, we hear what might be the words of another “pack rat.” It sounds like the words of one who has gone through the scrapbooks of life, coming to a point of applause.

“Enter into God’s gates with thanksgiving. Enter into God’s courts with praise. Give thanks to God and bless God’s name, for God is good. God’s steadfast love endures forever.”

In many of your Bibles, you will find a “subtitle” for each of the Psalms. Editors added these subtitles later as a way of providing context for the readers. In most Bibles, the subtitled for Psalm 100 identifies it as “A Psalm for the Thank Offering.”

What we have in Psalm 100 is a song that was sung by the people when they gathered to bring a “Thank Offering” to God. You can read about it in Leviticus 7.

On special occasions, the people would gather in the temple courtyard for a great festival. There was singing, fellowship, celebration, and praise. It was a time to remember and show appreciation for God’s blessings. In those gatherings, the words of Psalm 100 were sung by the people.

It was not outlandish or extravagant. It was a simple time to express gratitude toward God for God’s blessings and grace.

There were significant movements in the festival. We learn that the meal was made of meat and grain. This was to remind them of the time when Able (a Shepherd) and his brother Cain (a farmer) were still united as brothers.

Before Cain killed Able, one brought an offering from the flock, the other from the field. Then jealousy arose which was followed by violence as Cain killed Able. But in this thanksgiving festival, the offering of grain and meat were brought together to hearken back to a day before jealousy, anger, rage, and murder. It was to remember the time when the community was united, and to look forward to the time when it would be united again.

We share in that hope and dream today.

We look forward for a time when Cain and Able will be reconciled and once again embrace.

We look forward to a time when swords will be transformed into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.

We look forward to a time when the lion shall lay down with the lamb and there will be no more talk of war.

We look forward to that time when these hopes and dreams will become reality.

Understand, this is bigger than our politics. It’s bigger than Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative. It’s bigger than how we voted in the last election.

We long for a day when there is no more war, no more terrorism, no more mass shootings, and no more crime.

We long for a day when people will stop drawing lines of division according to race, color, or national origin.

We long for the day when there will be no more talk about “illegal aliens” because we will all live under God’s providence as neighbors and friends.

We long for a time when there are no more divisions between the rich and the poor, the Palestinian and the Jew, between this group or that group, between “us” and “them.” That’s our dream. That’s God’s dream for us.

The “Thank Offering” was about the blessing of what had been. For the goodness that should be celebrated. But for us, it also looks forward to what will be again under the “reign of Christ.”

I have a recurring dream. It comes to me when I am feeling torn by some type of stress, conflict, or controversy. In my dream, there are people present from every period and place in my life. There are classmates and instructors from my high school, college, and seminary. There are people from every church I’ve served. Many of the people in the dream are dear friends. But some of them might best be classified as enemies. Then there are those faces I do not recognize – Anglo, African-American, Arabic, Hispanic, and Asian. In this dream, I am serving Holy Communion. In that dream, all of the torn and broken pieces of my life are coming together under the influence of God’s grace.

That is our vision as Christians. It is a dream made up of the same stuff that Jesus came to reveal as integral to “God’s reign on earth as it is in heaven.”

And I like to think that was something of the hope that inspired the ancient community as it gathered. They set aside what caused division, and they look forward to the goodness of Divine unity.

Hear the Psalmist again, “The Lord is God. God made us all. We belong to God. We are God’s people!”

When they gathered to bring the “Thank Offering,” the bread they brought was unleavened. It was a reminder of the Passover. It was a reminder of the Exodus. It was a reminder that God had delivered them from captivity. It was a reminder that they were set free in a land of promise. They came with unleavened bread. It was a reminded of God’s gift of deliverance.

Has anyone here experienced God’s gift of deliverance?

In the past year, is there anyone here who can testify that God has delivered you from some great difficulty?

Are there those here who can say that God has redeemed the bad and blessed you with good?

Is there anyone here today who, upon taking an account of your life, can now proclaim with gratitude that “God is good!”?

You lost a job and were unsure how your make ends meet, but now you can testify that God provided a way. “God is good.”

You drove home after a visit to the doctor’s office, tears streaming down your face. The diagnosis was bad and the prognosis was worse. Yet today you can say that have been delivered from despair and you know “God is good!”

You stood near the casket of a loved one and wondered how you would make it another day. But you’ve made it another day and many more after that. You’ve been delivered through your depression and now you want the whole world to know that “God is good!”

Some of the items I found in my collection of stuff came during times when life seemed a bit rough. They came from times of struggle, brokenness, difficulty, doubt, and despair. I’ll bet you’ve had those times in your life. During the “Thank Offering” the people came to praise God with gifts of unleavened bread, which served as a reminder of God’s presence and deliverance.

That’s why the church gathers for “reign of Christ” Sunday. This is an occasion to go through treasure boxes of our lives, discovering that God has always been with us. God is with us, unchanging, ever-loving, and full of grace, goodness, and never ending kindness. God has been with us. God is good.

That our song! That’s what prompts our spirit of applause.
If you don’t think it’s too presumptuous for me as a guest preacher, I’d like to give you an assignment. It is not that difficult. In fact, I think you will enjoy it.

Sometime in the days ahead, I want to invite you to go through the treasure boxes of your life. They might be real boxes. They might be boxes of memories that you hold in your heart. Go through those boxes – and as you do, look past the pain and pleasure; look past the hopes and the fears; look past the plenty or the poverty. Life is filled with these ups-and-downs. Look past all those things.
Beyond and behind it all, find God. God is there! Find God and when you do, ask yourself…

“What is it about God that makes me want to clap my hands in child-like delight?”

“What is it about God that helps me to recapture the spirit of applause?”

“What is it about God that causes my heart to overflow with thanksgiving?”

When you have answered that question, clap your hands, sing, and shout. Maybe even dance. Can if suggest that in a Baptist church? Or maybe you’ll just want to grab your Bible and read aloud the words the Psalmist gave us.

“Enter God’s gates with thanksgiving. Enter God’s courts with praise. Give thanks to God and bless God’s name. For God is good. God’s steadfast love endures forever; God’s faithfulness extends to all generations.”

 

Birthing Moments of Hope; at Ginter Park Baptist Church

This is the sermon I preached  at the Ginter Park Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.  It is titled: Birthing Moments of Hope

Isaiah 9:1-7 – 1Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress.

In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan-

2The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.

3You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest, as warriors rejoice when dividing the plunder. 4For as in the day of Midian’s defeat, you have shattered the yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor.

5Every warrior’s boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire. 6For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.

The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this.

“Birthing Moments of Hope”

In a Peanuts comic Lucy is seated under her sign that reads, “Psychiatrist – Advice: 5 cents.”

Charlie Brown comes to Lucy, nickel in hand, and says, “Lucy, I need help.”

Lucy responds, “What can I do for you, Charlie Brown?”

“I’m confused. I can’t seem to find a direction, a purpose for my life,” replies Charlie.

Lucy answers, “Oh, don’t worry, Charlie. It’s like being on a big ocean liner making its way through the sea. Some folks put their deck chairs to face the bow of the ship, and others place their chairs to face the side of the ship or the back of the ship. Which way do you face, Charlie?”

Charlie Brown looks despondent, and finally says, “I can’t even unfold the deck chair.”

Last week I sat with you in worship. I sat right over in that back corner with my family. I listened attentively as Pastor Mandy told stories and shared statistics.

She told stories about injustice against people of color.

She shared statistics about acts of violence perpetrated against members of the LGBTQ community.

She told the story that was still fresh on our minds about a mass shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, TX.

She added the statistic that since 1968 nearly 1.6 million people were killed in gun related deaths (more than in all of the wars of the United States combined).

As I listened to those stories and statistics, I thought ahead the passage I would be preaching about this morning. I thought about the words of Isaiah about people walking in great darkness. And I also remembered Charlie Brown’s despondency at trying to find a purpose for his life on this great cruise ship called life, but not even able to “unfold (his) deck chair.”

But it’s not just mega-stories from the national or international scene. It’s also the micro stories from our own day to day existence.

You might have seen me on television or in the Richmond Times Dispatch back in August. Up until August 20th, I was the pastor of the Patterson Avenue Baptist Church here in Richmond. On August 20th our church worshipped for the last time. Then we disbanded as a congregation, and gave our property to a new, younger congregation.

That was the last day of a long journey. For the several years prior we had been walking in darkness and despondency. In the final few years prior to our final gathering, our congregation travelled from one graveside to another. We buried nearly 75% of our active membership. We died well. We died with an eye toward mission. We died in a fashion that served to advance God’s reign in our community. But we did die. And since that Sunday, I have been trying to figure out how to open my deck chair.

Shakespeare wrote: “Bubble, Bubble, toil and trouble.”

I’ve experience some of that – the toil of trouble and the trouble of toil. How about you? Is there some sore spot in your life that is seeking to rob you of your ability to stay focused and move forward? Have you experienced the despondency of not being able to open your deck chair? Have you ever felt like you fumbling around in great darkness, trying to find the light?

It seems to pile up, sometimes, doesn’t it? “The bubble, bubble, toil and trouble” just seems to pile up. And over time it can lead to what Dr. Carl Jung called “a neurosis of emptiness.” Jung wrote,

“When goal goes, meaning goes; when meaning goes, purpose goes; when purpose goes, life goes dead on our hands.”

We gather as a people devoted to casting seeds of justice and peace. We pray that our acts of kindness, goodness, and mercy will not return to us void (empty). And we gather each looking for a message that will give birth in our lives to a feeling of hope when we just can’t seem to get that stupid deck chair to open right way. We need to be counted among those of whom the Prophet spoke when he wrote:

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.

You have tasted that hunger  for hope. That’s why you keep coming back to worship. You want to be reminded that no matter how tough the circumstances, we are never left alone in the dark. We are never without hope. God is with us. God will never desert us.

Our text promises us the Divine’s presence. But to understand the promise, we need to step back a few chapters to the beginning of Isaiah 7 which sets for us the context. In Isaiah 7 (and 2 Chronicles 28) we learn about Ahaz, who was the king of Judah. We learn that unlike his predecessors, Ahaz “did not do what was right in the eyes of the Lord.” He began to adopt some of the religious rituals of his pagan neighbors, among these human sacrifice. God was not happy.
On the political and international front, things were not working out for Ahaz. After coming to power, he chose to continue Judah’s policy of appeasing Assyria, rather than entering into a coalition with Israel and Syria against Assyria. This so angered the kings of Israel and Syria that they gathered invading armies to overthrow Ahaz and institute a regime change in Judah.

Ahaz heard of their plotting. Fearful, Ahaz contemplated establishing an alliance with the Assyrians to defend his reign.

One day, while Ahaz inspecting the defenses around the water supply of Jerusalem, the prophet Isaiah came to Ahaz. He brought a message from God, aimed at calling the king back to faith. Isaiah told the king that the plot against him would fail. God would protect him. He should not form an alliance with the Assyrians.
Despite Isaiah’s best efforts, Ahaz ignored the prophet’s message. He began negotiating a treaty with the Assyrian’s to aid in his conflict with Syria and Israel. But Isaiah refused to give up. He went back to Ahaz and demanded that the king request a sign from God to confirm that his prophecy was true. Ahaz refused to request such a sign (v 12).
Isaiah offered such a sign anyways. In Isaiah 7:14 we read:

“A young woman shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Immanuel” (v 14, RSV).

The prophet says further that this child would not even be old enough to comprehend the difference between right and wrong before the plans plot against Judah would fail. And the mother of that child would be so grateful to God for God’s Divine protection that she would name her child Immanuel which means “God is with us.”

Isaiah’s message was that no matter how bad things appeared, hope is never lost as long as God remains actively involved in the world. And God is always actively involved in our world.

Right now, that’s a message I need to cling to. How about you? Do things sometimes seem hopeless to you? Does it ever seem to you that the light at the end of the tunnel is an oncoming train? Do you ever feel like Charlie Brown, trying to open the deck chair?

Here’s the thing: God has not given up on you. God has not given up on me. We have never been deserted by God. God’s Divine presence is always with us. Even when we are rebellious and disobedient, like King Ahaz, God does not turn the Divine presence away from us. Even when the whole world seems lined up against justice, peace, and righteousness, God never deserts us.

God is always at work, birthing new hope in our lives. It’s the week before Thanksgiving. Maybe this would be a good time to take stock of our lives. Maybe it is a good time for us to count our many blessings to see what God has done. Maybe this would be a good time to examine the new movements of God, to name them Immanuel (God with us), and celebrate the hope they bring.

That’s what Mary did. In the New Testament we hear a story about a birth of a child in Bethlehem of Judea. The text’s say that humanity would call this child Immanuel, which means “God with us!”

This one we call Immanuel is the promise of God’s presence This child challenged the dark despair of our world with a hopeful message that “the reign of God was at hand.”

The darkness tried to silence his message. It tried to silence his proclamation of hope. It tried to snuff out his very existence by nailing him to a cross, but the New Testament tells us that even the darkness of death could not hold him down. Immanuel defeated for us the darkness and despondency of death.

That is our greatest hope. That is our reason for gratitude. This is why we never give up. That is why we should continue to stand for peace, justice, and righteousness. This is why we should continue to declare the bountiful blessings of grace.

Here is the good news:
Even when we are rebellious
Even when we are afraid
Even when it feels like the darkness surrounds us
Even when we can’t open our deck chair

God is still with us. God is still with us. There are always signs of new hope being born in our midst. When we see those signs, let’s name them Immanuel – and let’s be grateful that they are a reflection of the one born in Bethlehem, whom we call Immanuel.
Amen.

Final Sermons: What’s Next?

This was the second to last sermon preached to the Patterson Avenue Baptist Church.  It explored “What’s Next” for the people and pastor.  The text is Matthew 6:33:  “Seek first the Kingdom of God and the righteousness of God.”

“He tells us what to release and what to hold on to.”